I couldn’t get a customs stamp — is a refund out of the question?

A stamp for you. / Photo by Sarah Parrott – Flickr Creative Commons

Note: You’ve probably noticed two things about today’s post. 1) It wasn’t available this morning; and 2) We’re back to Disqus 2012. The two are not related. We had server problems this morning. Disqus removed the ability to view comments on mobile from the “old” version, so we were forced to upgrade. (I am very unhappy with Disqus, but feel I have no choice.)

What’s an immigration stamp worth? If you said $61.55, you must know Nancy Bestor. She’s been fighting with her credit card over a tax refund after a recent trip to Italy, and she wants me to help.

I’m not sure if I can, and since this is the day on which we take a completely unvetted case and decide whether it should be mediated — I like to call it “Can this trip be saved?” — I’m asking you, dear readers, for help.

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Bestor’s problem is interesting on several levels, because it involves immigration, a credit card and a third party that, taken together, make this one of the most difficult kinds of cases to mediate. You’ll see why in a second.

First, I’ll let Bestor explain her problem. When vacationing in Italy this past summer, she bought five scarves that qualified her to receive a refund for the tax that she paid the retailer.

She decided to make a claim through Global Blue, a third-party service that helps travelers process refund.

We walked to the Global Blue office and received our refund in cash, as well as the paperwork and contract (which we signed) that stated we had to show “proof” of leaving the country.

In other words, we had to prove we were not living in Italy, as this tax refund is specifically designed for tourists.

Bestor told a Global Blue representative that she would be leaving by train during the next two days. She was told that she needed to have the tax exempt documents stamped by the customs agent on board our train, when she left Italy.

“Once we had the documents stamped, we were to mail them in a postage paid envelope, back to Global Blue,” she says.

That’s when things headed south.

We left Italy as planned. When the ticket agent came around to check our tickets, we told him we needed to get our tax exempt document stamped by the customs agent, to prove we had left the country.

The ticket agent chuckled, and told us there was not a customs agent on the train, saying “sometimes there is an agent on the train, sometimes there is not.”

We asked him how to proceed. He told us to simply send our train ticket that showed us going from Italy to Switzerland along with the tax exempt document, and write a letter accompanying it that said there was no customs agent on our train.

Global Blue then appears to have charged her $61.55, effectively reversing her refund.

Bestor disputed the charge, but her credit card company sided with Global Blue.

Global Blue is crystal-clear about its rules: “Remember: Incomplete Tax Free Form = No refund.”

Still, a Global Blue rep told Bestor to get the stamp on the train, and none was available. That’s gotta count for something, right?

Bestor thinks her credit card should help.

“I believe Capital One should stand behind me in this matter, because there was nothing I could possibly do to obtain a customs stamp upon leaving Italy,” she told me.

And if it doesn’t, then she asked if I would advocate for her.

I mulled this case for a few days. One immediate problem, from my point of view, is that this is that this case originated in Italy. It’s extremely difficult to mediate a conflict with an international company, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they don’t know who I am or who National Geographic Traveler is.

The other issue is the credit card dispute. I wasn’t sure Capital One could help, since the Fair Credit Billing Act gives it a broad license to ignore purchases made overseas.

And then, a breakthrough:

Capital One has agreed to take off half the charges, in the amount of 27 euros, which was the portion of the $61.55 that was the tax refund.

The other amount, 22.82 euros, was Global Blue’s “debiting fee”. Capital One says they will not take that portion off. I figure half a credit is better than nothing.

That’s good news, and when I followed up with Bestor, she said Capital One had assured her this was a permanent credit.

Should I pursue Global Blue for the rest? Something tells me it won’t do anything. After all, it’s based in Sweden and the last time I checked, there was no Swedish edition of my site.

Still, I’m not opposed to trying. It is, as Bestor notes, not the money, but the principle. Should Global Blue have to take responsibility for giving her bad advice?

42 thoughts on “I couldn’t get a customs stamp — is a refund out of the question?

  1. I was told that I had to get my stamp as I left Germany but when you leave by train, that just doesn’t happen.  So when I got to Zurich I asked about it and was told, yes, train travel doesn’t work for getting the stamp.  We went by car from Zurich to Triberg with family and stopped at the Customs booth on our way back to Zurich.  I got the stamp but was told by the Customs agent that she really wasn’t suppose to do it as you can’t leave the country, then come back in for the stamp.  But then how do you get the stamp when you can’t get it on the train?  I had tried to find the Global Blue office in Munich, but even with the address, we couldn’t find it, so I get the OP’s frustration with all this.   

    1. You use the customs of the LAST SCHENGEN stop before you leave the Schengen area to depart to the USA (meaning before you board your flight to the USA). No point using the train since that is still inside the SCHENGEN area.

      1. I was told at the customs office at the Banhhof in Zurich that if I was leaving Switzerland by train, they wouldn’t stamp it as it was from Germany. If I was leaving Switzerland by plane, which I was, since the purchase was made in Germany and I had left Germany without getting the stamp, it was 50/50 if I could get the stamp at ZRH. At that point I gave up and didn ‘t care. Then my son decided to take us to Triberg and on the way back, the German customs office was still open at the border, I had brought my paperwork, so we stopped and asked. The customs offical said that once you leave the country of purchase, they are not suppose to stamp the form for the refund, but she did, I submitted it and got my refund to my credit card on the next day. I made a large purchase that same day in Triberg that was being shipped home and the store discounted the price by the refund so I didn’t need to fuss with that one, thankgoodness!

        1. Here’s the problem why it is so darn confusing. I know of (and used) 3 ways to get your VAT back:

          (1) Use a service like Global Blue. You get your VAT back immediately from their field offices (guaranteed by your credit card) with a payment of a fee. But you must do all the customs inspection, stamping and submission (on the drop box) at the last airport before you leave Schengen. Why? because you will only find their special drop boxes at key international airports. I could be wrong but I have not seen any of their boxes at train stations.

          To be perfectly clear, if you take FCO-AMS-USA you can do it at FCO airport even if technically AMS is the last Schengen airport. (Obviously you won’t see your luggage any more at AMS since you are simply connecting.)

          (2) You don’t pay VAT at the store but you must have the paperwork they give you completed and stamped at a customs facility before you leave and you MAIL back the form from any postal box. The only stores that do this are those that TRUST YOU since they are screwed if you don’t mail the form back.

          (3) You pay the VAT, fill up the form, stamped at airport, mail from any postal box and get your VAT refund LATER (check in the mail). While you will usually get your VAT back, we got screwed once after my wife bought jewelry in Firenze and got nothing back (after doing all the paperwork and waiting forever).

          I am not sure if you can do #2 and #3 after simply crossing the border WITHIN Schengen. I think this is where most of the confusion is. There is no reason to have Customs within Schengen so you won’t find anyone to stamp your form.

          If you ask me, all the above are a pain in the behind. It is too time consuming at the airport. You might miss your flight since the lines in customs are usually long.

        2. Bodega3, just curious, was your large purchase in Triberg at House of 1000 Clocks? I bought a very nice cuckoo clock there and sent it home, and I think they did take care of the VAT there. Back on topic… I only voted no because it was such a small amount of money. Had it been $100, I’m not sure. I understand Capital One’s position. I don’t understand why the fees have to be so exorbitant… like about 50% of the tax? That’s ridiculous. I usually don’t even bother unless I make a really large purchase. Too much hassle for the money.

        3. Yes, my purchase was at that store.
          BTW, it was the tax refund window at the train station in ZRH that I went up to and was told they would not stamp my receipt. I should have ask the lady at the refund window at the airport about all this confusion, but by the time I found her location, which was not an easy find, I got my refund and left for my flight.

  2. There does not appear to be a poll.

    But if there were, my vote would be “no”–don’t bother to waste your time to get $30 back from an international company. While I’m normally hesitant to stereotype, I’ve got first-hand experience of the Italian version of “customer service” (ie they don’t much believe in it), so you’re likely to be spending more hours than the small amount is worth. 

  3. No, you should not help. Italy is a Schengen country, as is Switzerland. There are no more internal customs checks. All she needed to do was get the stamp on leaving Switzerland and she would have been fine. Yes, the agent was wrong, but, as a traveler in Europe, Bestor need to take some responsiblity for knowing the rules.

    1. You are correct. You need to [check in first for your flight and then] go to customs and show your “goods” AND get the form stamped AND use the correct drop box on the LAST SCHENGEN stop before you leave the area. We have done this many times, and have had no problem.

      People have to simply read the instructions and understand them. We did, and we followed it to the letter.

      If you don’t like this procedure, you can use the old one where they mail (or credit) the refund back to you afterwards. But that is not Global Blue.

    2. Agree, @Berkinet:disqus. While I think the 30+ euros is not enough to go after, I would’ve liked to have seen the lesson learned in the story (ie. get it done in the last Schengen country) so other travelers know what to do in a similar scenario.

      The few times I’ve pursued a VAT refund, I’ve factored that in to how early I should arrive at the airport. Thankfully, I’ve always been able to get a cash refund on the spot.

  4. No, you should not help. Italy is a Schengen country, as is Switzerland. There are no more internal customs checks. All she needed to do was get the stamp on leaving Switzerland and she would have been fine. Yes, the agent was wrong, but, as a traveler in Europe, Bestor need to take some responsiblity for knowing the rules.

  5. No, you should not help. Italy is a Schengen country, as is Switzerland. There are no more internal customs checks. All she needed to do was get the stamp on leaving Switzerland and she would have been fine. Yes, the agent was wrong, but, as a traveler in Europe, Bestor need to take some responsiblity for knowing the rules.

  6. If I were her, I would take it and move on.

    Ive looked into those sales tax refund things and usually I don’t spend enough to qualify.  I was with a friend once who did qualify in Germany.  She was to fill out the paper work, have it stamped, and mail it back and was was supposed to get a check.  She said she never got the check and let it go.  It was a few bucks anyway.

    Also, when you do get the tax refund on your purchases, aren’t you also supposed to declare those purchases upon entry and then get taxed on it anyway?  So its not like its a free tax refund, its a refund of their tax, so you can pay your own country tax.  Thats how I thought it worked anyway.

  7. Chris, I vote that you do not take this case. I am now living in India after having life in Singapore, both of which derive their tax laws from Europe. The VAT authority in each country is different from the customs authorities and for sure the railways.

    The ticket collector was being helpful, but he is not the competent authority. It is the VAT department that specifies what is the correct procedure and documentation required for a tax refund, and by law Global Blue is obligated to follow it.

    A train ticket is a reservation for a journey, not proof of travel on that journey. Both Ms. Bestor and you must realise this is not merely an issue of geography, but a dealing with the equivalent of the IRS in a foreign country.

    Ms. Bestor already got half her money back. Be thankful to Capital One, and forget the balance which was the Value Added Tax in any case.

    I had a tax refund of over $200 coming to me at London Heathrow. It was stamped by the correct authority. Everything was done by the book. The customs agent told me to put the envelope in the “slot round the corner”, and I did. The slot turned out to be the in box to the same dang customs office, not the VAT refund office 10 feet away. I never got the refund. It was an expensive lesson to learn. So now I share it with your readers and you.

    Europe has a very complicated and most times, not worth the trouble, tax refund system. Assume the tax will not be refunded and if the buy looks worth it, go ahead. A tax refund will be icing on the cake.

  8. I have always been a little dubious about these schemes that purport to get you back your tax. The hoops you have to jump through seem to be overly onerous for what amounts to be a very small amount of cash. The tax I pay if I purchase something abroad is effectively part of the cost of obtaining that certain something special I can’t get at home. Also, these stores push these refunds to make the goods appear more attractively priced & then the process to reclaim the tax turns out to be ridiculously time consuming. Is all this hassle that the OP went through worth the $65??

  9. I do not think that you should mediate. It doesn’t matter what Global Blue said. Once again, do not depend on a third party for travel advice.

  10. Any reason why the site was down most of the day? Also, my comment from this morning states it was hidden due to abuse reports. Any idea why?

    1. I noticed the site being down, as well. Also, this seems to be the newer version of DISQUS again (note the ability to down vote). Wonder if there’s any relation between the two? Strange to see DISQUS back on the new version after the big production of going to the old version just a week or so ago.

      1. Yesterday when I checked on the site, it crashed both IE 9 and Chrome – something about running a script. I thought at the time since Sunday is TSA day that there was something nefarious behind the conincidence.

    2. It looks like someone doesn’t like you; I mean really, what the heck was there to vote down in either of your comments? Maybe the site went down because that someone was submitting so many “down” votes that the servers were overloaded! 🙂

        1. I absolutely hate the down votes; bummer that function has returned. Without them, people are forced to engage and explain why they disagree with posts, leading to intelligent discussions. With them, it just invites trolls and people too lazy to articulate their points.

          1. I don’t really care about up/down votes (my record is 21 negatives for siding with the customer – once) but I agree it reduces the intelligent response. It feels more like a Yahoo forum with this format.

        2. Haha-I am a Red Sox fan and wouldn’t downvote you just because of your icon. (I am however, sticking my tongue out at you :p)

          I’m with Joe_d_Messina though. Bummed that downvotes are back. I’ll like a post if I like what someone says (you, Raven, Tony and a couple of others usually have some really good things to say). The only time I downvoted someone was when we had that inane troll.

          Now onto the meat of the post-I say no. She did get a refund of the taxes. She doesn’t mention (or at least Chris doesn’t mention) that the store said anything about the debting fees. Which is what Capital One says is what is left.

          I read through the Global Blue site and they do charge a handling fee. There is also a currency conversion fee. So that amount of the debiting fee is actually these fees I believe. And thus I don’t think she is entitled to a refund of those. I mean it sucks that those fees just about equal the taxes she got back-equally no savings at all.

    3. @emanon256:disqus According to @chriselliott, the site had to be rebooted after a viral post ended up on one of the servers. I checked and only see two comments from you today both of which show as active and approved. Did I miss a comment?
      Chris also sent us a note that he didn’t have a choice on going back to the new DISQUS. Apparently, they pulled mobile support for the old one over the weekend so if you wanted to be able to post from anything other than a computer, he needed to turn the new one back on.

      1. It was just those two comments, but my earlier one kept saying that it was begin hidden due to abuse. It seems to be back now. Thanks.

      2. I noticed I wasn’t able to use my ipad this weekend. Now I know why. I understand the switch back, but its a shame the down vote bullies now have their tool back. I also noticed the mods are now identified.

  11. This sad story is a similar one to what I have heard from many clients. However they did not have Global Blue involved. Seems Global Blue knows how erratic getting the correct stamps can be an profits from that. The V.A.T.refund system needs an overhaul!

  12. The bank should’ve been on the customer’s side on this one, as the bank has plenty of evidence that their customer doesn’t live in Italy.

    This woman deserves ALL of her money back.

  13. Might it be possible for her to take the goods and the various papers to the local Italian consulate here in the United States, and have the consulate stamp the papers to the effect that the goods were exported from Italy?

  14. I voted “yes” because it’s totally not her fault and plus, well, you’ve not dealt with Sweden and what you find out might come in handy some day….

  15. I learned this lesson the hard way – I waited in line at the Dublin airport to get my VAT and taxes back from my shopping and had to leave the line because I couldn’t wait any longer. I was out a couple hundred dollars but what can you do? I had to get to my plane and the line through customs was huge. My son and I barely made it to the flight. It is what it is. She was lucky to get back what she did.

  16. To the infrequent travelers, “Tax-Refund”, “Duty Free”, “Tax Exempt”, etc… are the biggest scams ever in tourism. All those gimmicks are to encourage you spend more money without knowing the real saving by majoring the prices and relying on your inability to compare and compute the real saving. And the refund are almost random if you don’t respect all the restrictions and procedures.
    Some places or companies issued you a check when you arrive home and it cost you 95% of the value of the check to cash this check in your country. In some country, you can’t even cash the refund check for different reasons.
    Once I received a refund check of 255FF of Louis Vuitton Paris and the cost of cashing this check is 250FF.

  17. Switzerland is a country in Schengen Treaty, so No Immigration Nor Custom Agent when you travel by Car, Train or Airplane from Italy to Switzerland, vice versa.

  18. I just had to deal with tax refund. It clearly states on the form: no custom stamp – no refund. Case closed. And the custom stamp does not have to be obtained in Italy, in the last port of entry in Europe. Therefore before you board your flight back to the USA, before you check your bags obtain a custom stamp at the airport.

  19. This seems to be a common problem. My Wife purchased some jewelry in Vienna last May, and received the paperwork that needed to be stamped at the airport, but when we arrived at the airport, about 2-1/2 hours early, the Agent who manned the Stamping booth was nowhere to be found, even though the sign posting the hours said he should have been there. Figuring that he might have gone to the Restroom, we left and returned 1/2 hour later. Still no Agent. After we returned again with the same results, we started asking around at the nearby shops, and with airport personnel. We never encountered so many shrugs in our life. Finally, after trying unil boarding time, we gave up. Only about $40 was involved, but in our opinion, this was either gross negligence or a scam. Either of these conditions is unacceptable.

  20. I voted no. Under other circumstances I might have voted yes, such as if Global Blue were an American company and could be held responsible for its bad advice in an American court, but given that the amount involved is so small and Global Blue keeps stonewalling, I think the fact that she got anything refunded at all is probably the best she can get.

  21. erm if u left any eu state as your last destination u can ask the vat custom to stamp for you.i bought bags from paris but claimed when i left milan to asia. another way is to google the internet and well copy it to your vat form and sent it in. lol get the drift…

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